At the behest of a group of students, the Wyoming House of Representatives took up a bill to mandate suicide prevention education in schools.
After nearly an hour of debate Feb. 3, the House voted it down 25-34, with one abstention, after discussions over the substance of what the curriculum would look like, as well as whether schools were the best place for such work. All three representatives for Teton County — independent Jim Roscoe and Democrats Mike Yin and Andy Schwartz — voted for the measure.
Yin called parts of the discussion on the virtual House floor “upsetting.”
Adding to existing legislation that mandates suicide prevention training for teachers, the bill would have stipulated that students also receive training in recognizing signs of depression in themselves and their peers. Teton County School District No. 1 already provides some suicide prevention education as part of its curriculum, communications director Charlotte Reynolds said Monday.
The bill would have codified such lessons across the state.
The legislation called for “programming,” rather than “instruction,” because members of the Joint Interim Education Committee worried that the second term would include it in the “basket of goods,” the bevy of educational outcomes the state is required to provide students. Programming, in the lawmakers’ minds, would have allowed assemblies, discussion groups and other creative methods.
Some legislators who agreed with the principle didn’t like language in the bill that said the programming “may include age appropriate, evidence based instruction.” They said the language was too vague and could insert subjectivity into the process, potentially exposing students who perhaps would be too young.
“I’m just quite concerned that there are going to be some unintended consequences of introducing the topic to some students who may not have, you know, may not have otherwise contemplated that issue,” said Rep. Hans Hunt, R-Niobrara/Weston/Goshen.
Data from the past decade shows that the suicide rate among youth ages 10 to 24 increased 56% between 2010 and 2017, from 6.8 per 100,000 to 10.6. Kids as young as elementary school have suicidal ideations and thoughts, and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center provides materials for how to talk about the issue with younger kids.
Many in the dissent asked whether the school system was the proper place to deal with suicide.
“We’ve got to take ownership and responsibility in our homes and stop relying on the government to provide these types of services, and specifically the K-through-12 education system,” said Rep. Landon Brown, R-Laramie.
Brown’s argument found support among some of his colleagues, who said that educational time is already precious and that adding more to teachers’ plates could take away from the outcomes legislators already expect from educators.
Many in support of the bill brought up Wyoming’s ignominious nationwide standing: At 25.2 suicides per 100,000 people, the state had the highest suicide rate in the country in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the end, misgivings over the bill won out.
Though they all voted in the affirmative, none of Teton County’s legislators made any comment during the vote. For his part, Yin hopes the Legislature might take up the issue in the future, especially considering that Wyoming’s students had driven the bill’s creation in the first place.
“These kids asked us for their help,” he said, “and I think this is something where we could have helped.”